(A shorter version of this article appeared in Social Text; Summer 2002).
[I] had begun to see the world as a cesspool of buffoonery. Even the violence was funny. A man gets his throat cut. He shakes his head to say you missed me and it falls off. Damn reality, I thought. All of reality was absurd, contradictory, violent and hurting. It was funny, really. If I could just get the handle to joke. And I had got the handle, by some miracle.1
In 1977, when I was a sixteen-year-old high-school dropout, I had the good fortune to be admitted to a graduate course in science fiction writing taught by Theodore Sturgeon at Antioch College/West, in Hollywood, California. For our third or fourth assignment, Ted gave us instructions to write a science fiction story that explained “why Black people don’t write science fiction.” That seemed like a good question to me, and I gave it as much thought as a precocious, white sixteen-year old could. (I am not sure how long Ted had been asking his classes this question, but I do know that ours was not the first to hear it.) In my own story, I gave my readers a sociological explanation: Black people were too busy surviving in the here-and-now to write science fiction. The entire class wrote stories that offered sociological or social psychological explanations. These variations on a theme apparently made good sense to Ted too, and I do not recall any other explanations being offered.
Over the last quarter century I’ve grown to understand that Ted asked the wrong question, and we students (all of us white save one Chinese-American woman) came up with the wrong answers. A liberal humanist, a strong supporter of Black civil and human rights, a visionary and a philosopher, Ted, like virtually everyone else in the science fiction world in the 1970s, was unable to see what was right before his eyes. I know for a fact that he’d read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for we discussed it (as a great novel, not as science fiction) during a late night jaunt to Ship’s coffeehouse.
It never occurred to either of us to think of Ellison’s novel as an example of Black science fiction. I am sure, because he was a voracious and eclectic reader, Ted was familiar with, if he had not himself read, the works of John A. Williams and Sam Greenlee. And yet, he never mentioned them as writers within the genre of science fiction, or even “speculative fiction,” as some were beginning to call it. The failure to see what is, literally, right before our eyes, has everything to do with how we see what we see. In order to recognize and evaluate African American works of science fiction, readers and critics need first to be familiar with the traditions of African American literature and culture. As Gregory Rutledge cautions us, we cannot effectively “evaluate the creative efforts of Black futurist fiction authors without a cultural predicate grounded in the Black experience.2
Science fiction has always been the literature to which I turned for insight, intelligent entertainment, and thought-provoking argument. It’s an inherited passion, as my mother was (and still is, at 85) addicted to the genre. Her books overflowed the shelves of the small den that served as my parents’ library and she moved them into my room, so I grew up with them. When, in community college, I began to study African American literature, I kept those course texts on other shelves. Before I reached graduate school, however, the lines had begun to blur and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door, and John A. Williams’ The Man Who Cried I Am all migrated from the “African American Literature” shelf to the “science fiction” shelf, while Samuel R. Delany’s books and Octavia Butler’s books migrated to the “African American Literature” shelf when I discovered, in the early 1980s, that each author is African American. To this day these books, and others like them, lead a nomadic existence, filed under whichever category seems most appropriate at any given moment.
White critics and audiences have often ignored and miscategorized books by African American writers, treating them, because of the race of their authors, as a breed apart. Earl A. Cash, in his study of John A. Williams, describes the malign neglect of African American writers, the majority of whom have worked within a naturalist tradition since the turn of the last century. He notes, “As in social matters so it is in the literary: race became an inevitable determinant. What by a white writer was naturalism became by a Black self-serving, paranoid exaggerations.3 The books that I discuss in this essay have all been dismissed for exactly that reason.
Here I briefly outline one sub-genre of African American science fiction: the Black militant near-future novel.4 In each text to which I refer, African Americans join in violent revolution against the system of white supremacy. All embrace a philosophy that affirms that “only the operation of natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces is admitted or assumed,” and share “the view that moral concepts can be analyzed in terms of concepts applicable to natural phenomena.”5 It is not my goal here to substantively critique each work, though I begin with a lengthy discussion of Imperium in Imperio so that I can outline some key themes that appear in the subsequent texts. Each text and each author have already been critiqued in isolation (some of them at length), as the bibliographic section of this article demonstrates. And in any event you should certainly purchase the books and read them yourself. Rather, my intent here is to define a genre and suggest that we might, as scholars and activists, benefit from excavating the connections between these texts, and begin to explore the implications of a distinguishable, though submerged, pattern of kill-the-white-folks futurist fiction in the African American literary tradition.
The four novels chiefly considered in this essay were, in their time, near-future histories in the naturalist vein: Sutton Griggs‘ Imperium in Imperio (1899); George Schuyler’s Black Empire (serialized in 62 installments, from 1936-1938), John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), and Chester Himes‘ Plan B (begun in 1968, but still unfinished on his death in 1983). Griggs’ novel partakes of the melodrama that went hand-in-hand with naturalist writing at the turn of the 20th century, as exemplified by such tear-jerkers as Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Frank Norris’ The Octopus (1901), and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905). Schuyler’s serial novels are at home on a shelf with the naturalist melodrama writers of the day, including Horatio Alger and pioneering science-fiction pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Himes’ Plan B employs the gritty “street” credibility of noir, and can, along with his other detective novels, easily be compared with the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light can be read comfortably alongside Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, as an urban novel of cause and effect, crime and consequence.
What separates these African American authors from their white peers, in addition to the double standard to which Earl Cash refers, are their roots in African American literary and folk traditions and their commitment to detailing the circumstances of their oppression: “the poverty, sickness, discrimination and sometimes joys”6 of being Black in America. As Robert Muller says, “Black artistic truth reveals essentially a failure in the underlying structures of white Western civilization and a proposal to set right those destructive social and political forces in nature.”7 In different degrees, these four texts reflect a profound pessimism about the possibility of achieving justice and equality “within the system.” They present the argument that African Americans must revolt or succumb to slow death at the hands of their oppressors. Each features a secret society of dedicated revolutionaries, a charismatic leader or genius, a face-off between those Black people who advocate violence and those who cannot bring themselves to do so. None are the best works of their authors, though they are all good books by excellent writers. It may be that the subject matter is too painful, the anger too hot, the conclusions too dire to stimulate and sustain the kind of creative energy that great writing requires. On the other hand, these texts and others that comprise the genre of Black militant science fiction are far too important to overlook, as they delineate the extent of the rage and violent potential in a long-oppressed population, righteous and desperate, if neither united nor organized, in its will to freedom and equality.
Use what you have to get what you need
Science fiction and naturalism mesh comfortably, as Jack London early demonstrated in his 1915 story The Star Rover.sup>8Contemporary near-future natural disaster novels like the now-classic Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) and the more recent The Rift (1999) continue to reach the bestseller lists. Black militant near-future tales are closely aligned to a definition of science fiction attributed to Gregory Benford: “SF is a controlled way to think and dream about the future. An integration of the mood and attitude of science (the objective universe) with the fears and hopes that spring from the unconscious. Anything that turns you and your social context, the social you, inside out. Nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible.”9
As James E. Gunn underlines, science fiction “deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places…. [I]t usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger.”10
The visions in these books are fed by technology but not led by it. African American science fiction shares a cultural and social heritage with African American literature and, by extension, the traditions of African American arts. In this tradition, the ingenuity of human beings is privileged over the products that they create. This emphasis on “soul,” as African American historian Lerone Bennett describes it, is “very definitely nonmachine, but it is not antimachine; it simply recognizes that machines are generative power and not soul, instruments and not ends.”11 As social science fiction, their chief concern is with working out the organization and structure of a future society, and they do it the way African Americans have often done it — without access to cutting-edge high-tech machinery. Rather, they meet the challenge of envisioning a new future most often by “making do with what they have.” As Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines have noted, people of color are experts at “‘refunctioning’ old/obsolete technologies or inventing new uses for common ones,” fashioning “technologies to fit their needs and priorities. In the process, they have become innovators, creating new aesthetic forms … new avenues for political action, and new ways to articulate their identities.”12
All four texts make use of old technologies in new and unexpected ways. Their inventiveness is in their ready subversion of the familiar world of ordinary objects. In Himes’ Plan B, for example, rifles are anonymously conveyed to African Americans by floral delivery messengers, who carry long gift-wrapped boxes tied with red ribbons — the sort in which one would expect to find roses.13 The entire sophisticated social mechanism for door-to-door delivery in 1960s Harlem is re-employed in a new and revolutionary cause. Only one novel, Schuyler’s Black Empire, also relies on high-tech laboratories and facilities to bring about revolution. Even in that case, the money and influence needed to build and maintain an expensive technological base is initially earned in an illegal fashion or stolen from the wealthy white women mesmerized by the ingenious Dr. Belsidus.
Like most science fiction of the day, these texts are written by men and feature male protagonists. Women, when they are included, are secondary (though in the case of Schuyler’s Black Empire, certainly quite strong) characters. The masculinist tendencies of the civil rights movement and the hyper-masculinist attitudes and self-presentation of the Black Power movement reinforce the already extremely sexist biases of the genre. These are not the books to read if one is searching for Black women’s perspectives on revolution and struggle. In fact, I have been able to locate no piece of writing by a Black woman that could reasonably be described as belonging to this genre.14 It is entirely a masculine production. For this reason, I have approached my readings as women most reasonably approach reading Freud — it’s a great description of the Victorian white European middle-class male psyche, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with what we really think. Nor does Black militant science fiction have much to do with how Black women think. My treatment of gender in this essay, therefore, is limited to a discussion of the roles that female characters play in each novel, and their implications for thinking about Black militancy.
Neither the male nor female literary tradition of the slave narrative provides a positive model for revolt: “even [slaves’] rational violent resistance nearly always ends in either terrible punishment or death, with the slaveholder sneering and triumphant.”15 It was stealth, cunning, rescue or luck that freed runaway slaves in the narratives published in the antebellum period. Revolt, however, was a part of the African American oral tradition from the beginning, and word spread quickly on plantations and farms when slaves armed themselves against their masters. Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner quickly became folk heroes, their names whispered in the slave quarters wherever word could spread.
So it is no surprise that Black militancy and revolt, however viciously punished, was a feature of Black novels from the first moment of Emancipation. Jerry Bryant traces their path in the texts of the three earliest male African American novelists: William Wells Brown’s Clotel; Or, the President’s Daughter (1853), Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859-62), and Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and their Friends (1857). Each of these books, in greater or lesser detail, portrays sympathetically the armed insurrection of slaves. Blake, with its with its plan “for a general insurrection of the slaves in every state, and the successful overthrow of slavery”16 was widely read and discussed in the African American literary community. It was likely the literary progenitor of the four novels under discussion and it set a precedent that has rarely been violated. The authors of Black militant novels of armed resistance to and overthrow of white supremacy almost never attempt to describe post-revolutionary society, and often abandon their protagonists before, in the middle of, or immediately after the battle. As in Blake, they often conclude on the very eve of insurrection.
Imperium in Imperio
In 1899 Sutton Griggs published Imperium in Imperio, a novel set approximately in the present-day or near future. That was four years after Booker T. Washington’s address at the opening of the Atlanta Exposition made the call for economic interdependence of the races combined with social segregation. It was six years before W.E.B. DuBois founded the Niagara Movement as a counter to Washington’s accomodationist stance, and eleven years before the Springfield, Illinois race riot birthed the NAACP. When Imperium was written and published, violence against African Americans was at its height and Black public awareness of and opposition to violent methods of oppression, particularly lynching, was at a sustained pitch.17 Griggs was a young Baptist minister deeply involved in civil rights work and utterly opposed to Washington’s admonition. The violence and segregation of the post-Reconstruction period doubtless formed the basis for his radicalization, and perhaps influenced his decision to leave Texas for seminary, and to remain in Virginia where he became a pastor. Though Imperium was his first and best-known novel, he wrote five more and an indeterminate number of essays on philosophy and politics. Practicing as well as preaching economic self-sufficiency, he self-published all of his literary and nonfiction writing and peddled them door to door.18
By his middle years, though Griggs still supported integration, he appears to have discovered that whites were best encouraged to donate money to the churches of men who publicly promoted causes that did not threaten the status quo. However, his reliance on funding from whites was his downfall and he abandoned his bankrupt church in Virginia in 1929 when the stock market crashed. He returned, apparently reluctantly, to Texas and died that same year. The trajectory from radical to conservative marks the careers of both Griggs and George S. Schuyler. Unlike Schuyler, however, Griggs was always what Wilson Jeremiah Moses calls a “genteel Black nationalist,” firmly middle-class and, despite his early militancy, rooted in European and American nationalist and separatist traditions that led to his later embrace of bourgeois assimilationist values.19 These early Black militant novels are the products of youthful ire and fire, contrasting sharply with the later novels of John A. Williams and Chester Himes, which are the fruit of maturity and a long life of radical politics, anger, and frustration.
The phrase “Imperium in Imperio” means “a government independent of the general authorized government,”20 a shadow government waiting in the wings for an opportunity to displace the existing government. This is, indeed, the central plot of Griggs’ novel, though it is not revealed until the final third of the book, when the wealthy and successful Black protagonist, Belton Piedmont, inducts his old school friend and recent fugitive from the law, the mulatto Bernard Belgrave, into the secret government Bernard administers. After putting Bernard through a loyalty test in which Bernard believes he faces death, Belton explains that Bernard is now part of: “[a]nother government, complete in every detail, exercising the sovereign right of life and death over its subjects, has been organized and maintained within the United States for many years. This government has a population of seven million two hundred and fifty thousand.”21 The organization sustaining the shadow government, like Schuyler’s Internationale, was founded and initially funded by a Black scientist through “the publication of a book of science which outranked any other book of the day that treated of the same subject….This wealthy negro secretly gathered other free negroes together and organized a society that had a two-fold object. The first object was to endeavor to secure for the free negroes all the rights and privileges of men, according to the teachings of Thomas Jefferson. Its other object was to secure the freedom of the enslaved negroes the world over” (191).
The book of science, Belton is careful to explain, “is now obsolete, science having made such great strides since his day.” The reader is intended to grasp the fact that it is not science nor technology that will set the Negro free, but a reliance upon the revolutionary ideals that brought the slave masters freedom from Britain. Science and technology are merely tools, as Lerone Bennett said: instruments not ends. The chief tool used to spread news of the organization among reliable Blacks was education, and that effort increased many fold after Emancipation. Students “were instructed to pay especial attention of the United States during the revolutionary period,” (193) and their new knowledge increased their outrage at the loss of rights suffered by southern Blacks at the end of Reconstruction: “This secret organization of which we have been speaking decided that some means must be found to do what the government could not do, because of a defect in the Constitution. They decided to organize a General Government that would protect the negro in his rights” (194).
The result is an alliance between all secret orders of African Americans, and all members of all secret orders were granted membership in the Imperium in Imperio after pledging their lives to the cause. Investments in Southern land at the end of the Civil War had increased the fortune left by the scientist until it was worth half a billion dollars, placing the organization in a position secure enough to be ready and able to go to war against the United States government. And Bernard, Belton announces, is to be the new President.
Two sub-plots sustain the novel until it reveals the plot of revolution. The first is the friendship between Belton and Bernard, an alliance between a wealthy, light-skinned mulatto and a lower-class, dark-skinned African American. Though their white schoolteacher attempts to divide them by favoring the light-skinned Bernard, the two boys form a deep bond of companionship through an honest competition for excellence in all their endeavors. Their brilliance is evident from an early age, and by the time they graduate high school both are well known for their skills as historians and rhetoricians. At this time the two men part: wealthy Bernard goes to Harvard University and Belton, with the help of a wealthy white liberal patron, goes on to “Stowe,” a small college in Nashville, Tennessee. At Stowe, Belton forms his first secret society, with the password of “Equality or Death” (59), and has his first taste of defying white authority.
Bernard, after graduation, meets his influential white father who tells him that he will come into ten million dollars and instructs him to attain power and influence, in which effort he will quietly be assisted by his father’s influence. Bernard becomes an attorney, runs for Congress and triumphs over a corrupt electoral process, securing himself fame and continuing fortune. Belton, as we might expect, has a rougher time of it. His quiet life as a schoolteacher in a colored school in Richmond, Virginia is destroyed when he starts up a newspaper and is fired from his teaching position for writing inflammatory articles. He secures and loses a series of menial jobs. Belton’s luck finally turns when he is invited back to Stowe College to take charge of the institution. Again his outspoken nature gets him into trouble, and he becomes the victim of a lynching in which he is actually hanged and shot in the head, but not killed. Unconscious, he revives on a dissection table, escapes, and seeks justice from the Governor, who puts him in jail; he is only saved by Bernard’s influence and brilliant defense, after which he takes charge of “Thomas Jefferson College” in Waco Texas and devotes himself to the Imperium full time. As he reveals, Belton has been a member of the secret organization since college.
Throughout the text, the differences in the opportunities and the security offered to dark- and light-skinned Blacks are highlighted. The fact that neither Bernard nor Belton will succumb to the forces that seek to divide them underlines their noble natures. And yet, when a confused Bernard asks Belton why he has, for so long, been excluded from the Imperium, Bernard answers:
The relation of your mother to the Anglo-Saxon race has not been clearly understood, and you and she have been under surveillance for many years.... It was not until recently deemed advisable to let you in, your loyalty to the race never having fully been tested.... Various young men have been put forward for [the honor of the office of President] and vigorous campaigns have been waged in their behalf. But these all failed of the necessary unanimous vote. At last, one young man arose, who was brilliant and sound, genial and true, great and good. On every tongue was his name and in every heart his image. Unsolicited by him, unknown to him, the nation by its unanimous voice has chosen him the President of our beloved Government.... You, sir, are President of the Imperium in Imperio.... (197-98)
In the same speech, Belton informs Bernard that his light-skin makes him a target of suspicion, and that all of Black America agrees that Bernard is the pinnacle of the race. In the end, it is the mulatto Bernard who becomes the driving force behind a violent revolution — Bernard who has not suffered overmuch from prejudice or discrimination. And it is Belton who sacrifices his life for the cause of nonviolence — Belton who has been lynched and beaten and who has struggled all his life to be accepted as a man. The tale of the Imperium and of both men is narrated by a third party, Berl Trout, who voted for the execution of Belton and fired the shots that killed him. Trout, horrified by his deed, decides to reveal the existence of the Imperium “so that it might be broken up or watched” (264). In the terms of the book, and in Belton’s own words, that is the action of the traitorous coward. Trout’s decision to commit an act condemned by both Belton and Bernard certainly brings his good character into question, and thus undermines his portrait of Bernard as a mad destroyer without redeeming qualities.
Though the contest in the book is between men of opposing opinion, it is important to examine the role that women play in this text. The mothers of both boys exert a strong influence upon them, shape their morals, and instill good values. Both mothers suffer: Hannah Piedmont struggles to feed her five children; the wealthy Fairfax Belgrave suffers a broken heart due to an enforced separation from her white husband. Both men fall deeply in love, and their relationships to the women they love affect and are affected by their political commitments.
Bernard courts the middle-class, dark-skinned, African-featured Viola Martin who cares for him but will not marry him. When Bernard presses too hard, Viola commits suicide, leaving behind a note explaining that though she loves him, she cannot marry a mulatto because she once read in a book that “that the intermingling of the races in sexual relationship was sapping the vitality of the Negro race and, in fact, was slowly but surely exterminating the race” (178). The stories of Bernard’s and Belton’s love relationships are the least credible in the text. Neither woman’s behavior is sympathetic or even understandable. That Viola, who fears the extinction of her people, should choose to kill herself for love rather than to live in sacrifice in a marriage with a dark-skinned man, producing children for her race, is implausible.
But it is not with Viola that Griggs is concerned. Her suicide serves to create the moment of despair in which Bernard is summoned by Belton, when he will be most receptive to the revelation of Imperium in Imperio. He is charged by Viola to commit himself to a struggle against miscegenation, and, if that fails, to lead their people to another land where they can live free from the threat of interbreeding. Thus, at the end, when Bernard declares war and passes up the option of emigration, he violates Viola’s trust. He also violates his mother’s trust by urging violence against whites (and thus, theoretically, endangering the life of her husband and his father).
Belton weds the middle-class, light-brown-skinned, European-featured Antoinette Nermal but then abandons her in horror when she has a fair-skinned child. They are not reconciled until immediately before his execution, when he visits his wife’s home and finds that the child has darkened with age and is his spitting image, though “a shade darker.” He goes to his death “proud of his noble wife, proud of his promising son” (259). Belton’s betrayal of Antoinette is motivated by his anger and embarrassment, and his belief that Antoinette was tempted by the benefits of an interracial relationship — made more attractive because Belton’s was unable to properly support her.
Belton knows something of the temptations to which he fears Antoinette has succumbed, since during the low period in which he moved from job to job, he had to disguise himself as a Black woman and take work as a nurse. He was pressured to grant sexual favors to young white men of the families for whom he worked, and when he resisted too long and too loudly, he was eventually kidnapped (probably with the intent of rape) and exposed as male. This period of cross-dressing gives Belton a “universal” understanding of the plight of African Americans, transcending the barriers of gender. The description of his masquerade is the antithesis of camp, and Belton’s experience as a woman is never made to seem ridiculous.
It is Belton’s mistaken conclusion that Antoinette has “fallen” to the blandishments of white men that moves him to treat her, in his heart, as if she had died, interring her with love and finality. In Grigg’s terms, Belton’s abandonment of Antoinette relieves Belton of all familial responsibilities and allows him to devote himself entirely to the work of building the Imperium, unhampered by feminine concerns. Their final reunion reestablishes Belton as a family man, and therefore humanizes him in comparison to the now monomaniacal Bernard. But the reader is left to wonder about Belton’s initial and incorrect decision to condemn and abandon his wife, and to measure that against his depiction, by Trout, as a man of sterling character.
Reading through the lens of the Black Power movement, Gloria T. Hull claimed, in a 1978 essay, that though “artistically flawed,” Griggs’ Imperium in Imperio can be considered a work of “socialist realism” because it “presents a secret, elaborately-organized Black Ônation within a nation’ which is steadily transforming American society.”22 Though “ham-handed with symbols,” critic Jerry Bryant claims that Sutton Griggs had a knack for portraying the irreconcilable differences between conservative and radical positions in Black politics.23 But where Hull focuses on Grigg’s naturalist style, Bryant describes the alternate history aspect of Imperium in Imperio: “In a kind of fusion of the John of Revelation and the John Bunyan of Pilgrim’s Progress, Griggs creates a visionary world in which Bernard Belgrave is revealed as an anguished but fanatical avenger, whose violent plans could ignite an apocalypse which Berl [Trout] ‘sees’ in his mind’s eye.”24
While the book’s narrator takes a final stand against what he sees as an ultimately evil decision to destroy white society, Bryant argues that the text as a whole “warns of the dangers of continued white violence that could ignite a holocaust in the dried tinder of Black rage.”25 Neither does Griggs seem to take a position, leaving it for the reader to identify her own heroes and make her own choices. This authorial decision to withhold judgment and to force the reader into a moral quandary is common to all of the near-future Black militant novels I discuss and, indeed, is a feature of the genre. Griggs’ work serves as an excellent model for future work, and we will see, in the texts I discuss below, the repetition of the contest between violence and non-violence. We will also see that the theme of male friendship is central to the genre, as is the marginalization of women and their competing symbolic value. Finally, we will see that the act of betrayal is central to each work.
It is important, for the purposes of this argument, to distinguish between Black near-future fantasy and Black near-future science fiction. Fantasy is a genre of its own and deserves serious treatment, but differs from science fiction because it relies on supernatural or metaphysical means to achieve its ends. For example, W.E.B. DuBois’ novel Dark Princess: A Romance (1928) features a worldwide organization of people of color, caught in a debate over whether violent or nonviolent means should be used to achieve the ends of freedom and equality. Du Bois, however, solves the argument by causing his male and female protagonists to have sex in the ethereal plane and conceive a magical child who will unite all peoples. As Jerry Bryant notes, in this fashion he “skirts a bloody and intractable reality with a kind of mystical deus ex machina…. [Du Bois] subtitles his story ‘A Romance,’ by which he means a method of fantasizing rather than confronting, and his choosing that form illustrates his own bemusement over an intractable world, combined with his inextinguishable optimism in a form that mystically joins the parts of the worlds of color that he will turn to in a much more political way in the fifties.27
Black near futurist fantasies eschew the “mood and attitude of science,” (see Benford’s definition of science fiction, above) for the worlds of fable, myth, dreams, magic and spirituality. Some of the greatest African American writers have worked within this genre and the alternate worlds they’ve produced range from William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer (1962) to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) to A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues (1986) to Charles Johnson’s The Middle Passage (1990). Women writers have been particularly active in employing fantasy in their works, and in relying upon spirituality as a means of resolving the tension between violence and nonviolence, particularly in the post-Sixties era. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), and Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) all use magic and spiritual transcendence as metaphors for healing the world and making things right.
The genre of Black militant near-futurist fiction, however, is built upon the renunciation of that spirituality and belief in magic. In no text in this genre is hard science more celebrated than in George Schuyler’s sprawling Black Empire, a work that was never intended to be published in a single bound volume, written in 62 installments for the African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, between 1936 and 1938. Quite a bit of recent work has focused on Schuyler, both as a figure of the Harlem Renaissance and as a writer, but most critics focused on Schuyler’s comic masterpiece, Black No More (1931). Equally science-focused, Black No More tells the story of Junius Crookman, African American doctor and inventor (and genius), and his invention of a medical process that can turn Black people whiter than white people. A witty and merciless indictment of all that the young, radical, socialist Schuyler found reprehensible in both Black and white culture, the book still appeals to audiences and enjoyed a great revival after its republication by Northeastern University Press in 1989. It is likely due to Black No More‘s success that Northeastern followed it in 1991 with a well-researched, painstakingly compiled, and carefully contextualized edition of the collected serial episodes that Schuyler wrote under both his own name and the pseudonym “Samuel I. Brooks”: “The Black Internationale” and “Black Empire.” The text was edited by scholars Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rassmussen, who wrote a lengthy afterward, and it was introduced by none other than John A. Williams, who places Black Empire in a continuum that includes Chester Himes’ Plan B and his own Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light.28
Williams, who was acquainted with Schuyler in the period after Schuyler’s conversion to conservatism, and who has many good reasons for not feeling charitably towards the man,29 finds a single strong point of praise for Black Empire, remarking at length on Schuyler’s genius as a science fiction writer:
As I read of Black ingenuity in these novels, I had the sense that Schuyler must have been reading copiously, including, perhaps, the works of H.G. Wells and the popular science magazines of the day. His Black Internationale intellectuals develop hydroponics or aquacultural farming (growing vegetables in water) in the U.S. and transfer the process to Africa. I don't think this was recognized as a viable method to grow food until the Israelis began to use it, mainly through the drip process, after 1948.
We began to hear about underground aircraft facilities when the Gulf War began early in 1991. The Saudi Arabians had them and it was believed the Iraqis did, too. But we find them in Black Empire over half a century earlier. Schuyler's heroes and heroines (ahead of his time there, too) developed what we now call the fax machine, skipping over the telecopier that actually preceded the development of the fax. Television, in its swaddling clothes at the time Schuyler wrote the serials, is fully developed here and used in the closed-circuit mode. Undoubtedly, the conception of solar heat for energy had been considered for some time, if not used in rudimentary form. Schuyler's Black Internationale organization develops and uses solar collectors for the energy needed to run its buildings and machines. Once settled in Africa, its members dine on health foods — almost no meat but plenty of vegetables produced artificially, and no coffee or tea, only natural juice.
On the grimmer side, Schuyler foreshadows the gas chambers the Germans used so prodigiously in World War II, when Martha Gaskin, having gathered the leaders of British industry into a concert hall in London, seals the door and turns on the gas. Similarly, allusions are made in the African scenes to mass euthanasia to rid the race of disease, practiced without benefit of any Nuremberg-like laws. Dr. Belsidus, in the final analysis, is a dictator, a fascist, although his goals are established as moral ones.30
White Critics and the Black Militant Near-Future Novel
Chester Himes never seemed to have any problem admitting the level of hatred and distrust he had for white Americans, and that may, in part, be the reason that his literary work has been given far less attention than it deserves. It is certainly the reason why he left the United State forever and went to Europe. At a lecture titled “Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the United States,” Himes told his audience,”To hate white people is one of the first emotions an American Negro develops when he becomes old enough to learn what his status is in American Society. He must, of necessity, hate white people. He would not be — and it would not be human if he did not — develop a hatred for his oppressors. At some time in the lives of every American Negro there has been this hatred for white people; there are no exceptions. It could not possibly be otherwise.”40
His audience, Himes recalls in his autobiography, sat in stunned silence. There was no applause. He had broken a deep taboo and no one knew how to respond. Yet his voice was only the first, beginning with Himes’ solo performance in the Fifties and swelling into a full chorus crescendo in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Himes’ Plan B and John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light are only two parts of a far larger whole comprised of the farthest-out kill-the-white–folks fantasies of the Black militant literary movement.
That white people were bound to misunderstand Black militant near-future novels was assured. Their general ignorance of Black culture guaranteed that Black satire aimed at Black audiences would simply not make it on to their radar. A tendency to take literature (especially literature by minorities) literally, an uncritical acceptance of racial stereotypes, and a lack of facility with the brilliant pyrotechnics of African American vernacular made it likely that few white readers would see these novels as anything other than trashy, cartoonish, and crude. Most white critics totally ignored their existence.
Of the few who did not, Jerry Bryant serves as an excellent example of the sort of misreading that is made possible by privileging preconceived notions over cultural immersion. Bryant attempts to explain the explosion of Black revolutionary literature in the Sixties, and he begins with a description of the Seven Days in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can.”41
Bryant quoted this passage to illustrate “the imagery that emerged in the mid-1960s in the African American novel of violence. At this point, the organized revolutionary group becomes a popular way to express the anger of many Black Americans.”42 Bryant argues that “these groups occupy a late stage in the evolution of the violent hero and avenger developed over a century or so of African American fiction …. The logical and lineal descendants of the proviolence side of the long-standing debate in the Black community over how to retaliate and defend against white violence and oppression, the warrior-hero in full bloom.”43
Griggs and Schuyler went down this over a half a century before, and it is curious that although Bryant is demonstrably familiar with the works of both authors (and also likely came across Schuyler’s Black Empire), he chose to overlook the existence of pre-1960s novels of armed revolution. When he later mentioned a number of lesser-known Black militant near-future novels of the Sixties, Bryant openly revealed his prejudices: “The open talk of violence was heady in itself, but to watch a white nation tremble at their threats — that seemed, for many, an irresistible stimulant, and a number of novels appear in these years in which the rhetoric of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and others is embodied in the characters and action of fiction. Much of this fiction, however, reflects the same exultant fantasy of the most extreme Black Power speakers, a fantasy that borders on comic-strip images.” 44
The novel that Bryant chose to exemplify this genre was the one he called its “most egregious” example, Julian Moreau’s The Black Commandos (1967). A tale of tables turning, The Black Commandos features the usual brilliant and talented Black genius, in this case one J. Denis Jackson. (J. Denis Jackson is also the real name of the author — Moreau is a pseudonym.) Like Belsidus, Jackson kills off a lot of white people through superior strategy and tactics, and places his people in power. Ambivalent about the novel, or perhaps even somewhat confused, Bryant described the strengths of the text he chose for its “egregious” nature:
Jackson succeeds in pushing the "white power structure" to the verge of collapse, then negotiates an agreement favorable to African Americans.... The agreement expresses a serious attempt to say what African Americans need after three centuries of oppression. For thirty years, they will live as a privileged group. Then after the inequities were washed away, the races could "gradually' become equals and go on from there to challenge the universe together." Moreau's belief in racial unity carries him beyond the anger he expresses in his novel and separates him from the most voluble Black Power activists. His notion of privilege even hints at the affirmative action programs that will be instituted in the late sixties and seventies to redress the inequities he talks about. Though the novel is more tract than art, it speaks with a voice that other, better novels assume and in its crude oversimplifications highlights the superstructure of the Black Power sentiment.45
Bryant’s decision to equate the affirmative action programs that arose out of Sixties activism to the “privileges” that the conquering African American forces will enjoy for thirty years after their victory locates him squarely in the conservative camp. If we didn’t get the message clearly enough, he later commented that the “Black Aesthetic movement anticipated the “politically correct” activism on today’s university campuses, which assumes all culture and its literature exist as manifestations of dominant power groups.”46
Bryant’s conservative bias led him to grossly miscategorize the novels he discussed, lumping together serious Black militant novels like John Oliver Killens’ ‘Sippi (1967) with seriocomic extravaganzas like Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) and Chuck Stone’s King Strut (1970), Blyden Jackson’s Operation Burning Candle (1973), and Nivi-Kofi A. Easley’s The Militants (1974).47 He entirely missed the satirical and playful aspects of these Black militant texts. Written in the era immediately preceding and during the explosion of the blaxploitation film, it seems both disingenuous and completely wrong-headed to read them as “straight” novels.
Bryant devoted much of Victims and Heroes to mustering arguments to challenge African American critic Addison Gayle, with whom he clearly had a bone to pick. Bryant was a shill for universalism and “great” literature, desperate to make room for white critics in the field of African American literature. He contested Gayl’s assertion that there are uniquely Black qualities in literature, and that the best Black literature relies on those qualities and rejects white ideas and interpretations. Most of all, he fought against the idea that African American culture has inherent worth, unrelated to the “universal” messages of its “greatest” authors. His blindness to the Black aesthetic ensures that he will misread the very novels he chooses to use as ammunition in his attempt to undermine Gayle.
The “Black Power” novels that supposedly illustrated the “best” of Black literature in Gayle’s terms (this was Bryant’s claim and not Gayle’s, of course) were more likely written as outrageous, satirical, and ironic examples of wildly exaggerated street-culture-meets-over-the-top-revenge-fantasy than as any sort of “real” vision of Black political culture. Bryant made the same mistake with much of the Black Power rhetoric he quoted. H. Rap Brown was a lyrical genius, known far and wide for his ability to signify. The Panthers used the hyperbolic rhetoric of the street (dozens, signifyin’) with the same panache they donned their black leather coats, tilted their Black berets, and publicly shouldered their guns. To miss this is to miss Black culture — not a surprising mistake on Bryant’s part, since he insisted on his right to view it entirely through white lenses.
It’s hard to imagine Bryant attempting to place pot-boiler romances, or pulp science fiction novels in the same continuum as “literary” works — had he been working with mainstream white literature, he would likely have found them beneath his notice. Doubtless he would have recognized them as belonging to different genres. But Bryant apparently placed all African American novels in the same category, and then judged them from “good” to “bad.” An astute critic would have recognized that these Black militant futurist or alternative present novels actually did belong to a different genre than self-consciously literary creations by established authors like John A. Williams. It would have made far more sense to connect these kill-the-white-people Black militant novels to the seriocomic tradition established by comics like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory and by the outrageously funny examples of critique and commentary offered by Dolemite than to the literary tradition of the Black novelist.
As Darius James, a young Black teenager in the years encompassing the publication of Greenlee, Moreau, Easley, etc., explained in That’s Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadassss ÔTude: “My teenage agenda was simple. 1. Get high. 2. Overthrow the U.S. government. 3. And fuck big-boobed white girls.”48 James was ironic both about his agenda, and about the genre that he said shaped his youthful ideals — blaxploitation. He, or young men like him, were likely consumers of these Black militant novels, perhaps in part because the comic book tradition lacked a decent supply of Black super heroes. Bryant’s assertion that militant Black writers “do not see the irony in their reversal of the white myth of stereotyped Black brutes slavering over delicate white female bodies” is absurd. All one needs to do is listen to Pryor’s character Ben the Blacksmith in “Prison Play” (1968), a comic scenario that riffed explicitly and intentionally on exactly that reversal.49/sup> Black militant novels, like blaxploitation film, speak with a double tongue, despite seeming Simple.50
Plan B and Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light
It is with Bryant’s misinterpretation in mind that I’d like to approach Himes’ Plan B and Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. Both books were written during approximately the same period. Although Himes’ Plan B was not published until after his death in 1984, the book was substantially finished by 1971, with only minor changes in the ensuing years. It is, thus, better read as a product of the earlier era. Both Williams and Himes had published novels the critics liked far better. Bryant, for example, waxed rhapsodic about Williams’ earlier work, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967): “The Man Who Cried I Am is not an opportunistic exploitation of a chic market fashion, nor is it a puerile fantasy. It is an attempt to make meaning out of a set of events that Williams would rather not have to face…. There is no stereotypical Black militancy in this novel…. Williams does not resort to simple reversal or get any vindictive pleasure in imagining the deaths of whites or the superior ability of Blacks to kill. Melancholy pervades this novel, not heroic anger or righteous resentment or revolutionary fervor.”51
Bryant declared The Man Who Cried I Am to be “one of the best American novels of the decade.”52 What seemed to particularly attract him is its message that despite their victimization at the hands of whites, “African Americans can be as petty and self-serving, grasping and self-centered, as anyone else.”53 As far as Bryant was concerned, this was one more nail in the coffin of the Black aesthetic. Since many Black militant novels make the same point (Schuyler, for one, is a master of the intra-racial lampoon), it is hard to see this as a real distinction between Williams’ work and the work of other authors described in this essay. More likely, the literary qualities of The Man Who Cried I Am made the book more accessible to a critic such as Bryant. And perhaps that is why Bryant reduced his critique of Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light to a single paragraph, describing protagonist Eugene Browning (yet another “B” name) as an “heir” to Max Reddick, the protagonist of The Man Who Cried I Am. While Max Reddick does not commit himself to violence before he is killed, Eugene Browning “concludes, only with reluctance, that violent confrontation is necessary. Blacks have exhausted every other recourse and want desperately to make their country healthy, to heal the division between races. Violence is like the shock treatment one authorizes for a beloved relative.”54 This plot places the book squarely into the larger category of Black militant novels Bryant despised and perhaps provides an explanation for his reluctance to dwell on it.
Critics did recognize the book as futurist fiction, and most of them noted the near-future setting in their reviews. Earl Cash, in his study on Williams, said of the book, “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light … presents the Black man’s response to the white treachery in The Man Who Cried I Am. Max Reddick had concluded that interracial conflict was inevitable. Browning not only recognizes the inevitability of the conflict but begins preparing himself for a role in that conflict. It is fitting, too, that the story takes place in the future. The author had described in past books what was to come if Whites did not respond to Black cries for justice. In Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light the clash begins in 1973, the not-too-distant future from the vantage point of 1969.”55
Gilbert Muller, in his own study, underlined the importance of the future setting in encouraging the reader to believe that action may still be taken to prevent the nation to coming to such a pass: “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light is subtitled, ‘A Novel of Some Probability.’ What Williams describes is indeed probable, and the book may serve the dual purpose of warning Whites of what may be imminent if Black/white relations are not improved as well as warning Blacks of the pitfalls of which they must beware if they decide to rebel.”56
Williams’ credentials as a naturalist writer are well established, as John M. Reilly demonstrated in his scholarly work on The Man Who Cried I Am.57 According to Muller, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), and Captain Blackman (1972) comprise a trilogy that can be compared to the great work of another American naturalist writer: John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Muller remarked, “Dos Passos is one of the few writers to whom Williams will acknowledge a literary debt.”58 Williams also admitted, in an unpublished autobiographical sketch in 197859, that he had a youthful fascination with pulp fiction, and read “anything … by [Edgar Rice] Burroughs.” Williams saw Sons of Darkness as a sort of pulp novel too, describing it in terms reminiscent of Schuyler discussing Black Empire: “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light in many ways was a pot boiler for me anyhow. I sat down and wrote it comparatively quickly compared to my other books. This was a reaction to my continued poverty after The Man Who Cried I Am came along…. So I sat down and wrote this book. I think it’s one of my worse novels. It brought in more paperback money than The Man Who Cried I Am…. The things that are crap or tend to be crap … always for some reason do better.”60
The contest between violence and nonviolence in Sons of Darkness is played out, once again, between two old friends. Eugene Browning (yet another revolutionary beginning with ‘B’ — it is getting hard to believe that this is all coincidence) is a college professor who decides to quit his teaching job and go work for a civil rights organization, the Institute for Racial Justice, full time. The pro-violence and antiviolence roles in this novel are delegated to different characters who represent various positions. Don Mantini is the Italian Godfather who, curious about Browning’s decision to hire a hit man to kill a racist police officer, decides to meet with Browning anonymously. The two develop a friendship, though Browning is unaware of Mantini’s identity. Mantini shares with Browning his theoretical knowledge about the implications of violence, and admires Browning for his commitment and passion. Viewed against the backdrop of a criminal world where people kill for profit and revenge, Browning looks distinctly noble.
If one thinks of Mantini as murder’s upper-level management, then the second important character, Itzhak Hod, is a member of its working class. Hod, an Israeli, is an assassin, a “plumber” for the mob, a tragicomic figure who Muller cogently describes: “A Polish Jew who has fought and killed anti-Semites, Fascists, Nazis, Arabs, and an assortment of political victims all his life, Hod is a killer with a heart and soul. He is an internationalist who carries with him … the horrors of the twentieth century. Hod is the philosopher of death, the connoisseur of killing.”61 Browning also has lesser relationships with Jessup, a Black militant who has worked out a bizarre arrangement with the John Birch Society (perhaps a reference to the young Schuyler, who Williams claims embraced conservatism far earlier than is thought, and who did, in fact, have a relationship with the John Birch Society).62 He interacts with two other Black revolutionaries and winds up imprisoning one of them, Leonard Trotman, in a closet over Labor Day weekend to ensure that Trotman can’t inform on a bombing.
Betrayal is, without doubt, one of the major themes in this novel. It is, in Williams’ estimation, part of contemporary Black militant culture: “In the first place — it may be a Black thing. I don’t know — we seem to abhor secrecy. You can’t have a militant Black group in this country unless it’s infiltrated. It’s just impossible. The only groups you can have that are valid and functioning and haven’t done anything yet are those that operated in total secrecy. We just don’t seem to be able to pull that off. I think that’s what’s totally necessary in this society that is shot through with surveillance systems, peoples, codes, and so forth.”63 Political and personal betrayals abound in Sons of Darkness. Browning’s daughter Nora betrays him by dating a white boy. Carrigan, the doomed police officer, betrays his wife with another woman. Browning betrays his old friend Herb Dixon for money to fund his scheme to assassinate the white police officer. Browning betrays Trotman by locking him in the closet. And when Browning returns home at the end of the novel he finds he’s been betrayed by Val, who is having an affair.
The women in the novel carry the moral weight of judging character and intent. It is Itzhak Hod, oddly enough, who winds up playing Belton’s role and giving up his career as an assassin to settle with his young wife Mickey in Israel. Mickey’s love redeems him and gives him the strength and security to make a decision he knows is correct. Val’s affair is a judgment on Browning’s withdrawal, and it ceases as soon as he returns and asserts himself as her husband. Williams’ women, though sometimes more sympathetically drawn, have no more agency than in other works in the genre.
Williams has an intimate connection to the final novel I wish to discuss. Chester Himes was “one of his favorite writers and friends,”64 and Himes discussed the writing of Plan B with Williams in interviews and personal correspondence. Williams called Himes “our single greatest naturalist writer,”65 but waxed ambivalent about the author’s posthumous publication: “Plan B remains a puzzle to me, because it does not begin to make clear the crucial, connected point Himes discussed back then: ‘It’s a calculated risk, you know, whether they would try to exterminate the Black man, which I don’t think they could do. I don’t think the Americans have the capacity, like the Germans, of exterminating six million. I don’t think the white American man could. Morally, I don’t think he could do this.’ I characterized that as a ‘jive morality.’ I disagreed with Himes then and do now. Only once in Plan B does the author arrive at this point, where American morality is put to the test, in a couple of lines of dialogue at the novel’s strange and disappointing end. And this is precisely why I believe the book will always be an incomplete testimony to his beliefs.”66
In Plan B the brilliant Tommson Black67 (a revolutionary rather than a Dr. Belsidus-style fascist) conceives of and funds a plan to distribute weapons to African Americans in the hopes that they will mount a revolution directed by Black’s organization, CHITTERLINGS, INC. The novel is also the conclusion of Himes’ Harlem detective cycle since it ends in the death of both men: Grave Digger kills Coffin Ed, and Tommson Black kills Grave Digger. The plot, as Williams and other reviewers note, is not well-constructed. In fact it barely exists, so Plan B is more easily read as a montage of fragments, some more developed than others, from at least two potential novels. Most compelling are the individual scenes of murder and mayhem and seemingly random violence. Or rather, the violence is seemingly random only to the uneducated white observer: “It is the accumulation of past deeds that is the trigger, and therein lies the foundation of absurdity of the novel. For most white people the past is over and done with; but for most Black people it is the past that has made them what they are; they know white people will never release them from the past because they cannot do so without losing the misplaced belief in their superiority. But this past is there, as it must be, or the present doesn’t exist, all of which is, of course, absurd. The remembrance of things past is nothing if not everything.”68 Despite the fragmentary and episodic nature of the novel, the tension between violence and nonviolence — or in this case, the tension between more violence and less violence — is certainly palpable at the end. As Williams said, this last scene tells us clearly that there is “the Grave Digger way, the Coffin Ed way, or the Tommson Black way,”69; they are mutually exclusive and they each require a betrayal.
Even the female characters partake of the general madness and violence in the novel. In the opening, and perhaps most powerful chapter, a rifle is delivered to a Harlem apartment. The woman of the couple, Tang, is excited by the rifle and the note that accompanies it:”WARNING!! DO NOT INFORM POLICE!!! LEARN YOUR WEAPON AND WAIT FOR INSTRUCTIONS!!! … FREEDOM IS NEAR!!!” Her man, T-bone, is terrified and wants to turn the rifle in. They get into an altercation over the rifle and Tang threatens to shoot him if he calls the police. When he makes a grab for the rifle she pulls the trigger, but the gun is unloaded. In a blind rage he slashes her to death. And in the final scene, after Black has executed Grave Digger, a beautiful Black woman walks into the room, looks around and asks Black why he committed the murder. She listens to his response and her words are the final words of the book: “I hope you know what you’re doing.”70 These women signify a radical departure from the archetypal woman in Himes earlier novels, who tended to be a “seductive, curvy, amoral sexpot with very light skin.”71 Both of the dark-skinned women undermine male authority. The first pays for it with her life, but the second gets the last word. In Plan B the whole world is turned on its head.
It is useful, at this point, to remember what Himes had to say about the absurd nature of racism, and about absurdity in general: “Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of racism, but it generates absurdity in the victims. And the absurdity of the victims intensifies the absurdity of the racists, ad infinitum. If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life, eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life.”72 Black militant near-future fiction is a genre that lends itself to the expression of that absurdity. To read it without knowledge or understanding of African American culture is to miss its meaning and, most important, to fail to get the jokes.
Slip the Yoke
In this paper I’ve argued for the definition of a new sub-genre of African American science fiction: the Black militant near-future novel. I’ve examined four works that fall comfortably within the genre and mentioned several more that could easily be included. The Black militant near-future novel falls within both the African American and the naturalist literary traditions and meets the definitions of science fiction as well. Works belonging to this sub-genre generally focus on a future in which African Americans engage in armed rebellion against their white oppressors, and they feature the following themes: secret societies, charismatic leaders, tension between positions of violence and nonviolence, differing status among African Americans (often symbolized by skin color), marginalization of women characters whose sole purpose is to further the plot and enhance our understanding of the protagonist.
These novels often make use of low-tech solutions to problems of supply, organization, and maintenance of revolutionary organizations, focusing on human relationships rather than always using cutting-edge technology. In this sense, they are related to other contemporary science fiction works outside the sub-genre by Black American writers, including Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes, whose works also reflect the sensibility described by Lerone Bennett early in this paper: technology as “instruments and not ends,” useful for their “generative power,” but lacking in the Soul that provides the African American aesthetic with its unique power.
It is my hope that the description of this sub-genre provided in this article will both illuminate and clarify some of the long neglected works of Black militant writers, and will help critics to reclaim these works and to situate them within the various traditions upon which they draw.
The soundtrack for this essay was provided by Anthony Braxton, Charlie Mingus, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler. During breaks from writing I’d put Richard Pryor in the CD player. In an amazing moment of synchronicity, I happened to choose That Nigger’s Crazy, and it came around to the “Flying Saucers” routine. I’d forgotten all about it, and yet, when it kicked on, it meshed perfectly with what I’ve been trying to get across in this article — that mix of truth and laughter and attitude and pain. It’s the perfect note to conclude on. Pryor starts out by imitating and making fun of white folks, who are amazed, frightened and impressed when they see a flying saucer. In contrast:
Nothing can scare a nigger, after four hundred years of this shit...
The Martian ain't got a chance. A nigger'd warn a Martian, "You better get your ass away from around here. You done landed on Mr. Gilmore's property."
Martian landed in New York, the niggers'd take his shit from him. "You got to give up the flying saucer baby..."
- Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity quoted in Muller, Chester Himes: 14.
- Rutledge: 128.
- Cash: 1.
- The genre of African American science fiction is just beginning to be defined and explored. For a ground-breaking work on the subject, see Sheree R. Thomas, ed. Dark Matter. New York: Time Warner. 2000.
- Cash: 3.
- Muller: 31.
- Furer: 108.
- James Patrick Kelley, “Slipstream,” in James E. Gunn & Matthew Candelaria, Speculations on Speculations: Theories on Science Fiction, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen NJ, 2005: 343-344.
- “Introduction,” The Road To Science Fiction, Vol 1, NEL, New York 1977
- Lerone Bennett, The Negro Mood, quoted in Henderson: 115-16.
- Nelson, et al: 8.
- This bring to mind the scene in Beverly Hills Cop, in which Eddie Murphy makes it past the protective executive secretary and into her boss’ office by pretending to be a delivery man. “Floral delivery is my life,” he says as he moves smoothly around her.
- If you know of one, please let me know. You may reach me via email at email@example.com.
- Bryant, Victims & Heroes: 26.
- Martin Delany, Blake, quoted in Bryant, Victims
- Bryant, Victims & Heroes: 72.
- American National Biography, access online via University of Arizona Sabio system, June 30 2001: http://sabio.library.Arizona.EDU/wm/anb/articles/16/16-00663.html
- See Moses, Golden Age.
- E. Cobham Brewer. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Bartleby.com http://www.bartleby.com/81/8779.html (June 28, 2001).
- Griggs: 190.
- Hull: 151.
- Bryant: 91.
- Ibid.: 92.
- Du Bois, Dark Princess.
- Bryant: 152-53.
- Schuyler, Black Empire: xv.
- Williams mentions that Schuyler gave him a number of poor reviews for his books, and the two were deeply opposed
- John A. Williams, “Introduction” in Schuyler, Black Empire: xiii-xiv.
- Schuyler, Black Empire: xv.
- For an excellent overview of women’s roles in the civil rights and black power movements see Sara Evans, Personal Politics (New York: Random House) 1980. For a first-person detailed narrative detailing women’s roles in the Black Panthers see Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (New York: Anchor) 1994.
- Schuyler, Black Empire: 255.
- Peplow: 18.
- Ibid.: 113.
- Bryant: 149.
- Ibid.: 150.
- Judge: 41.
- Schuyler, Black Empire: 260.
- Chester Himes, “Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the United States,” quoted in Lundquist: 16.
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, quote in Bryant, Victims & Heroes: 237.
- Bryant: 237.
- Ibid: 237-38.
- Bryant, Victims & Heroes: 246-47.
- Ibid.: 246-47.
- Ibid.: 246.
- Ibid.: 248-50
- James: xix.
- Recorded live at The Troubadour, West Hollywood, CA, in September, 1968. From the album Richard Pryor, Dove/Reprise #RS-6325. Currently available on Warner Bros. Records #R2-76655, in the Richard Pryor CD box set.
- I am thinking, as I capitalize this term, of Langston Hughes’ Simple stories, which illustrate the double-voiced nature of African American rhetoric.
- Bryant, Victims & Heroes: 255-56.
- Ibid.: 252.
- Ibid.: 256.
- Ibid.: 257.
- Cash: 109-110.
- Ibid.: 112.
- Reilly, “Thinking History.”
- Muller, John A. Williams: xiii.
- Ibid.: 5 and note 7.
- John A. Williams, interview in Cash: 138.
- Muller, John A. Williams: 91-92.
- Schuyler, Black Empire: iv.
- Quoted in Muller, John A Williams: 94.
- Muller, John A. Williams: 31.
- Sallis: 226.
- Williams, “Review of Plan B“: 492.
- Yet another protagonist whose name begins with a “B.” It would be difficult, at this point, to make an argument for coincidence. This consistency supports the argument that the later authors of the novels under discussion saw themselves as part of a distinct an particular conversation within the African American literary tradition. Himes, whose lack of subtlety has been widely noted, simply declares what the “B” stands for: Black.
- Williams, “Review of Plan B“: 493.
- Ibid.: 493.
- Himes, Plan B: 203.
- Skinner: 22.
- Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity quoted in Muller, Chester Himes: 11.
- Jerry H. Bryant, Victims and Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
- Toni Cade Bambara, reissue edition, The Salt Eaters. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
- Earl A. Cash, John A. Williams: The Evolution of a Black Writer. New York: The Third Press, 1975.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess, reprint edition Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 1928.
- A.R. Flowers, De Mojo Blues. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986.
- Hoyt W. Fuller, “Traveler on a Long, Rough, Lonely Old Road: An Interview with Chester Himes,” Black World 21 (March 1972): 18.
- Andrew J. Furer, “Trademarking Jack London,” Resources for American Library Study 26, no. 1 (2000), 103-109.
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “???,” New York Times Book Review (look up date).
- Neyir Cenk Gékçe, comp., “Definitions of Science Fiction,” hosted at http://www.panix.com/~gokce/sf_defn.html. June 30, 2001.
- Sutton Griggs, Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem. A Novel. North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company, 1999.
- Stephen E. Henderson, “‘Survival Motion’: A Study of the Black Writer and the Black Revolution in America,” TITLE? Mercer Cook and Stephen E. Henderson Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
- Chester Himes, Plan B. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
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